The bigger they come, the harder they fall. Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s richest man, three-time premier and pre-eminent libertine, is now a tax fraud. By autumn he will be under house arrest or even sweeping the streets for his community service.
To ensure he does not flee the country like his mentor and former premier Bettino Craxi, who was convicted of receiving bribes, Berlusconi will now have to hand over his passport to the Interior ministry.
Even more humiliating for the would-be elder statesman is the requirement that he surrender his diplomatic passport to the foreign secretary Emma Bonino, one of his leading feminist critics who once described Berlusconi as “an international embarrassment”.
He has until 16 October to choose between a year of house arrest or community service. That might sound like a no-brainer. And some of his supporters have already mocked the notion that the billionaire playboy would choose to donate his time to help other septuagenarians when he could simply spend a sybaritic year in one of his many villas or palaces.
But Berlusconi has indicated he would prefer community service. With his political genius, it’s likely he would make the most of the publicity.
Public appearances would certainly allow him to vent his spleen. The long, seething video message he put out on Thursday night dispelled any doubt that he was furious and aghast that the judges of the Supreme Court, Italy’s highest court, had definitively convicted the billionaire of hiding millions of euros from his media empire in overseas slush funds.
The alternative opinion, shared by the majority of Italians, came from anti-establishment politician Beppe Grillo. “His sentence is like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989,” the former comic declared yesterday. “The wall divided Germany for 28 years. This tax evader, friend of mafiosi, card-carrying mason, has polluted, corrupted, and paralysed Italian politics for 21 years since he came onto the scene in order to avoid bankruptcy and prison.”
The fact that the law has finally caught up with Berlusconi probably hasn’t mitigated overseas observers’ bafflement as to how he got away with it for so long.
For many Italians Berlusconi has for two decades been the incarnation of everything wrong with their country: its moral shabbiness, its superficiality, the elevation of the family above the state, the readiness to indulge special interests if it advanced one’s own career.
Berlusconi made a huge fortune out of property and became a billionaire media mogul, celebrated for his glamorous lifestyle long before he dreamed of going into politics. He probably made the momentous decision to enter the political fray fearing the knives would be out for his media empire if a radical left-wing government came to power following the collapse of the established political parties in the wake of the Tangentopoli corruption scandal in 1992.
At the start, few beyond his devoted fans took him seriously: how could an ingénue like him survive in that snake pit? He soon showed, however, he was leagues ahead of conventional politicians, creating in Forza Italia a party focused on himself, which was run like a business by his own employees.
As an addict of American television and the man who brought commercial TV to Italy, he was from the outset a genius at marketing himself and his shiny but vacuous political product. He forged alliances with neo-Fascists and northern secessionists and barged into government at the first attempt.
But the public prosecutors were not far behind. There were huge questions hanging over Berlusconi’s rapid rise to become the nation’s richest man: was he really in cahoots with the Sicilian Mafia? If not, why had he taken a senior Mafioso on as the “stable manager” at his mansion, despite having no horses? Had he got the better of the tax police by the simple dodge of putting their inspector on his payroll? Why, as prime minister, had he de-criminalised accounting fraud? The suspicions were numerous and weighty, and prosecutors were determined to get to the bottom of them. The criminal trials haven’t finished yet. And they probably never will while Berlusconi is alive. But in the shorter term, his legal travails may have very serious repercussions for Italian politics.
Under legislation introduced in 2012 by the Monti government, Berlusconi will not now be able to stand as a candidate at the next election. But worse than that, there’s a good chance he will be kicked out of the Senate in the coming months.
If enough members of the centre-left Democratic Party vote with the populist Five Star Movement on the Senate disciplinary committee they could bar him from parliament on the grounds that he now has a definitive conviction.
But whether the members of the Democratic Party will do that, and risk the collapse of the left-right coalition, which relies on Berlusconi’s support, remains to be seen.
But after 20 years of watching helplessly as Berlusconi ducked and dived, the law finally appears to be getting the upper hand.
The Guilty Men? Berlusconi's friends
The ex-premier and Socialist Party leader fled to Tunisia in 1994 to escape a 25-year jail sentence for bribery. A close friend of Berlusconi, Craxi was accused of taking bribes worth millions of pounds. He died in exile in 2000.
Berlusconi’s lawyer, and sometime Minister of Defence, was found guilty of bribing a Rome judge in order to help Berlusconi win a takeover battle with another tycoon.
The former senator, a close friend and political associate of Berlusconi, was sentenced to seven years in prison for Mafia collusion this year by a Palermo appeal court. He denies the charges.